For the first 28 minutes, Juwan Howard’s return to the sidelines couldn’t have gone any better.
The Wolverines were in control, dominating a lifeless Indiana team despite a rowdy partisan crowd for the Hoosiers 50 minutes from campus in Indianapolis Thursday. Howard’s return felt secondary, the cloud over Michigan’s head receding after a tumultuous few weeks sparked by the postgame fracas in which Howard hit Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft. The win Michigan was heading toward would have fully solidified the Wolverines’ trip to the NCAA tournament, an honor that was far from a given even three weeks ago in the aftermath of that Wisconsin loss.
But the tide turned quickly. A game in which ESPN’s win probability tool once gave the Wolverines a 98.7% chance of winning was flipped on its head as Michigan collapsed under the pressure, going more than 10 minutes without a made field goal. Indiana roared back with a season-changing run, giving the Hoosiers new life in their pursuit of an NCAA tournament bid with a 74–69 victory. It was the latest in a roller coaster of a season and a roller coaster of a month for Michigan, leaving the Wolverines to sit at home and sweat whether their name will be called on Selection Sunday.
Howard says he didn’t sleep Wednesday night in anticipation of getting back on the sidelines for the first time since that infamous moment. But from the outside, things looked normal with Howard back coaching the Wolverines. He entered the floor quietly with just seconds to go on the pregame clock, earning a smattering of boos from the Hoosiers fans who noticed the coach emerge from the tunnel, but nothing unexpected. Once the ball was tipped, Howard’s sideline demeanor was the same as always. His most animated moments were often when he’d demonstratively shout “TWO!” to indicate a one-possession shift to a 2–3 zone defense.
Perhaps it was the stakes of the game for both teams’ NCAA tournament hopes, but Howard’s return didn’t feel like the story of the day, even before Indiana’s late surge. Wolverines point guard DeVante’ Jones said postgame that Howard’s return to the sideline brought Michigan energy early on, but nothing the head coach said could turn the game back in his team’s favor once the Hoosiers gained momentum. More questions were asked of Howard postgame about dealing with IU forward Trayce Jackson-Davis than about his actions a few weeks ago against Wiscconsin.
And yet somehow this backbreaking loss felt all too familiar for a Michigan team for whom nothing has come easily for this season. The Wolverines have oscillated from top-five preseason poll expectations to blowout nonconference losses, a home loss to the Big Ten’s last-place team, then impressive wins over top-15 KenPom teams like Purdue and Iowa to help revive hopes of an NCAA tournament appearance. The infamous punch from Howard may have been the most visible moment, but there has been nothing ordinary about this Michigan season. Since that dominant Purdue win a month ago, Michigan hasn’t won or lost consecutive games. That streak was poised to end today … until it didn’t.
Howard was emotional and contrite Wednesday in his first meeting with the media since his suspension, sharing that he sought therapy and making clear he had to be better. But the emotional toll this season has taken on Michigan can’t be overstated. The Wolverines’ players didn’t ask for the additional scrutiny Howard’s mistake a few weeks ago created for them. A win Thursday, particularly a convincing one, could have taken a weight off the back of a team that has carried a lot of it all season long. Instead, this demoralizing defeat puts Michigan back at the drawing board for what promises to be a long 72+ hour wait until the Selection Show. The Wolverines are likely in a better position than other teams truly sweating out the bubble right now thanks to their five quality wins. But at 17–14 for the season they are not a lock to get in, and could easily wind up in the First Four in Dayton should they hear their name called at all. Put the Wolverines in the Big Dance, and they’ve proven they’re talented enough to make a run or fragile enough to be run out of the gym.
Howard’s presence on the sideline Thursday felt normal. Michigan’s players were happy to have him back. But getting their head man back didn’t fix the ups and downs of what has been as turbulent a season as anyone has experienced this year. And the passengers on the Wolverines roller coaster shouldn’t take off their seatbelts yet.
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